Tuesday, January 31, 2012

We're So Blue...

If the...game?...between the Illini and Michigan State didn't make you blue, what would? Personally, I'm a bit nauseous. Poor shooting, abundant turnovers, plenty of fouls, great frustration, injuries and poor decisions on both sides made for an u-g-l-y game.

But a win is a win is a win is a win, and Bruce and his boys really, really needed one. Even if they didn't deserve it.

Defense -- for both the Spartans and the Illini -- was the only real bright spot. The Spartans shut down Meyers Leonard, and the Illini, plus fouls and the flu, kept Draymond Green from having much of an impact. The Illini (and an overinflated ball, according to commentator Dan Dakish) held the Spartans to just 24% shooting. And even with 18 offensive rebounds, the Spartans couldn't hold on to a lead.

Tom Izzo's team, fresh off victory #400 for their coach, did everything they could to let the Illini win. And with their characteristic generosity, the Illini did everything in their power to give those opportunities right back to the Spartans:

All that seemed to fit with the Coaches vs. Cancer blue-out that gave Assembly Hall a much more subdued feel than usual. [Note to the Sports Marketing Department: I'm sure the promotion was great for t-shirt sales, but let's skip this one next year.]

However, Paul did lead the Illini with 18 points and 5 assists during his full 40 minutes on the floor. And Myke Henry provided valuable minutes, points, rebounds and hustle off the bench.

This game tape will provide plenty of fodder for the rest of the conference to figure out how to contain the Illini as they head into a brutal road schedule. And plenty of fodder for Coach Weber and staff to harp on during meetings and practice. The boys left plenty to improve on in this game.

But the win was much needed, so we'll take it.



Saturday, January 28, 2012

Barnyard Basketball

Minnesota's Barn has been almost a home away from home for the Illini in the last decade. The antithesis of the Bryce Jordan Center. Not so this season.

This one hurt. Lots. Especially with that bit of deja vu, as Illinois watched their road lead slip away at the end of regulation much like the Gophers watched their road lead slip away in Champaign. Painful.

The Illini got off to a very strong start offensively, and they looked really good in the first 6 minutes or so as they moved the ball and hit good shots. Defensively, they got a few quick ticky-tack fouls, and that came back to haunt them at the bitter end.

Then the Illini got a bit lethargic, as Minnesota came on strong, closed the gap, and took control of the game with their "second line." The Golden Gophers bench played the Illini better than their starters throughout the game.

But about halfway through the the second half, the Illini chipped away at the lead and took over again. They looked to be in good shape, but a couple big 3s and that old-fashioned 3-point play for the tie that took Meyers Leonard out of the game sucked the heart and fight out of the Illini.

Brandon Paul tried to put the Illini on his back in overtime, but momentum was with the Gophers...and the Illini got their third straight L to entrench themselves in the middle of the Conference standings.

Kudos to the Gophers for some beautiful passing for impressive assists and for finally starting to make their free throws during crunch time.

For the Illini, Paul and Leonard both had great overall games, but they also had plenty of painful, unforced turnovers, which seem to be the team's Achilles heel. They also seem to be just a bit off on their communication and timing on the boards and offensive tip-ins. Those little things can easily make a big difference in these tight Big Ten games.

So, after a solid week of practice and another road loss, will Bruce and his boys be able to pull themselves together? We will find out soon...



Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's a Win!

Congratulations to Jolette Law and the Illini women's basketball team on their first Big Ten win! These girls have had a tough go so far, losing several tight games at the end.

But today the girls gutted it out against Michigan State for an overtime win on the road. The Illini were shooting incredibly well in the first half, and took a 14-point lead into halftime. But that lead evaporated quickly at the beginning of the second half, and the Illini played from behind the rest of the way. They kept it very tight, and tied to up to send the game into overtime, where they took the game over. And won. Finally!

Despite foul trouble, Karisma Penn helped the Illini get a Conference win. And Adrienne GodBold was clutch.

So congratulations again, girls! Let's see if you can get another one...



Anybody Want a Ranking?

So far this season in the Big Ten, one of the best ways to secure a win is to play a ranked opponent.

Illinois was on the better end of that trend against #5 Ohio State a couple weeks ago, but once they made it into the top 25 (barely), they did everything they could to fall from the rankings. At Penn State, it was plenty of turnovers combined with not-their-best defense. Against Wisconsin, they just stalled before the clock ran out.

The Big Ten is a very competitive conference, and as Penn State, Minnesota and Nebraska have shown, anyone can win any game. But the Illini were poised to prove they are contenders for the top of the conference this year. And they weren't able to step up.

Yes, any road game is going to be tough, but the Penn State game (as usual) was winnable. Of course that contact technical was a turning point in that game, but it was still a great chance to steal a W on the road.

But you must protect home court. And unfortunately the Illini didn't do that against Wisconsin's blistering 3-point shooting. Tough loss at home, for sure.

Next up, Minnesota. The boys will have had almost a week to dwell on those loses. Let's hope they are ready...



Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Lou!

What more could any great coach ask for on his 80th birthday? Former Illini coach Lou Henson got to see many former players, his name and picture raised to the top of Assembly Hall, a birthday serenade from Illini nation, and the upset of a top 5 team on his birthday. Sounds like a great day!

The upset win came despite Ohio State having more rebounds and significantly fewer turnovers (11, compared to 18 for the generous Illini). The current Illini starters did their part in giving Coach Henson a gift/game to remember:

Even with a big win, the Illinio gave Coach Henson plenty of reason to be glad he is retired. And reason for Coach Weber to keep them working during their 8-day break. Unforced turnovers. Not getting the ball to an open, hungry Leonard. No free throws for Leonard. A scoreless bench, even though Tyler Griffey added a couple key steals, and Myke Henry had another. Giving up 15 offensive rebounds.

Bruce Weber's Illini currently define the phrase "playing to the competition." Against Nebraska, a team struggling as they get to know their new conference, the Illini allowed them to hang around the entire game. But against #5 Ohio State, they stepped up with tough defense and great shooting. In fact, with the exceptions of the losses to UNLV and Purdue and a couple cupcake wins, the Illini have played everyone close. This will be another thing for the Illini to work on during their break in the conference schedule.

But all said, there was plenty to be excited about in Champaign, especially after that less-than-impressive home performance against the Cornhuskers last weekend. Go Illini!

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Giving Spirit

Happy New Year! Christmas has passed, but the spirit of giving has remained strong within the Illini men's basketball team. Big Ten Conference play has begun, and there has been one consistent theme for these boys. They love to give it away...the ball, a lead, their composure, etc.

And while this spirit is completely appropriate in many facets of life, it isn't necessary on the court. Illini turnovers have been painful in recent games. The passing game that can take your breath away (remember that Tracy Abrams dunk in the Minnesota game?) has also led to many passes to opponents.

There is plenty to like, as the Illini are 2-1 in the conference. Any road win is a bonus, given the way the conference looks right now, and winning at home is critical. Defense and rebounding have looked pretty good, as the Illini take advantage of their athleticism. Joe Bertrand has continued to come on strong, and earned a starting spot.

But they have plenty to improve on, as well. The offense needs to find a rhythm and flow - preferably with an even stronger focus on Leonard. And the turnovers really need to slow down. Significantly. On the court, that giving spirit should not extend beyond your teammates.

That said, stay on track, boys. Go Illini!



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